Since opening its new facility more than three years ago, I continue to be curious about the programming at Phoenix Theatre, the advancement of its mission, the artists who work there, and its enhanced technical capabilities and production values. That curiosity continues to be rewarded, as was the case on Friday when I saw “Bakersfield Mist,” a comedy with plenty of sometimes-heated drama, by playwright Stephen Sachs. The show runs Thursday through Sunday, December 19, on the Steve & Livia Russell stage.
“Bakersfield Mist,” which enjoyed a Rolling World Premiere in the National New Play Network in 2018, has since been produced worldwide and is best known for the London’s West End production that starred Tony-nominated actor Kathleen Turner. Making the local Phoenix production most notable is its direction by well-regarded actor Constance Macy, a Lunt-Fontanne Fellow, who performs regularly at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, as well as other theatres around the country. “Bakersfield” marks her first time directing at the Phoenix.
Actors often make good directors, and in this case, Macy’s own stage experience shows in the way she guided the gifted duo of Jolene Mentink Moffatt and Joshua Coomer. Their performances in “Bakersfield Mist” were not only highly entertaining, but also compelling for the nuanced quality and dimension they brought to their characterizations. Over the years, I have seen the work of both actors numerous times and can vouch for the believability and honesty they bring to any role they play and their work in this piece is no exception.
Based on a true story, the play centers on Maude Gutman, who loves to haunt thrift stores and junk shops, where the trash of others is added to the kitschy treasures she amasses in her mobile home. Eventually, she comes across a painting which she buys as a joke for a friend who ends up hating it. So, after deciding to keep it, she concludes the work is an authentic Jackson Pollock piece. To verify its authenticity, she hires an art expert, who flies from New York to assess it. What ensues is a battle of wits between the two opposites, who spar over what is art and its purpose, in what is essentially a clash of culture and class.
Moffatt, an actor whose work I have seen numerous times over the years, turns in one of her finest performances to date in her role as the hard-edged, crude, outspoken and unemployed bartender with a penchant for Jack Daniels, who desperately needs to confirm the painting is real. To offset the effects of past tragedies, current humdrum and maintain the newfound optimism the piece has afforded her, a lot is riding on whether the painting is real.
Coomer, whose work I also admire, is thoroughly convincing as Maude’s adversary, a haughty, condescending and arrogant art “connoisseur” and former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Coomer’s rich portrayal makes for a very entertaining contrast to that of Moffatt’s, a toxic, yet comical, chemistry between the two characters.
Another character in the play is Zac Hunter’s splendidly designed set, which serves as Maude’s cluttered, kitsch-filled double wide, which speaks volumes about her personality and emotional needs and only reinforces the absurdity of someone with her tastes becoming a Jackson Pollock fan. The set, which is promoted as being one of the Phoenix’s most ambitious efforts ever, lives up to the hype.
Sach’s piece, which partly explores art authenticity, asks us to examine our own authenticity and that of others. But for me, the play had more to say about the disparities between the haves and the have-nots and the nature of class distinction, which continue to divide this country. Thankfully, plays such as this remind us how important it is to find common ground rather than dwell on things that separate us and most importantly, not place ourselves above others by virtue of our privilege.
For tickets and information about “Bakersfield Mist,” visit phoenixtheatre.org.